Louisiana “Causeway Charge” Struck Down as Unconstitutional Tax

April 14, 2008

Separation of powers is highly valued in the United States, with our federal constitution and the constitutions of all fifty states separating powers in some form between executive, legislative, and judicial branches. So far as I know, only legislative branches have the power to impose taxes, although (for instance) the judicial branch can impose fees to cover its costs.

A case in Louisiana last week affirmed these principles. The case, Louisiana v. Lanclos, involved a driver cited for speeding on the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway Bridge in New Orleans. Found guilty in court, he was assessed a $65 fine and $129.75 in court costs, with $5 of those court costs labeled a “Causeway Citation.”

The $5 charge was imposed by a Louisiana law passed in 1997, on any person found guilty of a traffic offense on the bridge or its approaches. The money is used for police officer salaries and equipment.

The Louisiana Supreme Court, in ruling that the $5 charge was an unconstitutional tax levied by the judiciary in violation of separation of powers, analyzed whether the charge was a tax or a fee:

Although a police department may be considered to be a “link in the chain” of the criminal justice system, and there is some logical connection between a police department and the criminal justice system, we find that police salaries and uniform equipment and maintenance is too far attenuated from the “administration of justice,” to be considered a legitimate court cost. To hold otherwise would start us down a slippery slope, and we must draw the line at some point. Every expense incurred by the police department in its role in enforcing the laws of this state cannot be funded through “court costs.” To do so would overly burden and unduly infringe on the court’s administration of the judicial court system.

Accordingly, we affirm the trial court’s finding that the $5.00 assessment provided in La. R.S. 32:57(G) is a “tax” funded through the judiciary in violation of the doctrine of separation of powers.

The Court relied on a previous case, Safety Net for Abused Persons v. Segura, 692 So.2d 1038 (La. 1997), which invalidated a “fee” imposed on persons convicted of domestic violence for domestic violence prevention programs (citations omitted):

After examining the statute, we found that the money collected did not go to court services, or to any other entity associated with the judicial system. Instead, the money went to a private, nonprofit corporation to be used at its discretion for domestic violence programs. Because the “fee” was not assessed to defray the expenses of litigation or to support the court system, and was a revenue raising measure designed to fund a particular social program, we found that the “fee” imposed by the statute was, in reality, a tax. We noted that “[a] charge that has as its primary purpose the raising of revenue, as opposed to the regulation of public order, is a tax. Moreover, a tax is a charge that is unrelated to or materially exceeds the special benefits conferred upon those assessed.”

These cases should be looked to whenever politicians try to disguise what are clearly taxes as “fees” or other such things.


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